How (Not) To Make Money to Travel
People generally want more money for travel, so they can do it better, or, in some cases, to do it at all. I know the feeling – I’d love to upgrade my budget hotel to the Chateau Fairmont when I travel to Quebec City, for instance, and really, who loves flying economy? Here are my thoughts on various way to make money to travel, with a couple of tried-and-true suggestions of my own.
As I research ideas for this blog, I keep coming across articles, blogs, videos, and podcasts on how to make money for travel. These come from across the board – digital nomad sites, regular travel bloggers who have ‘made it’, and folks who I suspect aren’t making money yet, but rather parroting someone else and trying to sell their product.
I have a little secret for you:
It’s not that simple.
Really, it’s not. We all wish it were, but the fact of the matter is, very few people make enough money for significant travel (or any other reason) using the techniques that so many bloggers seem to be pumping. Coincidentally, I have tried a number of the recommended methods, not in relation to my travel fund, but because I was doing them as hobbies; as a result, I have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to make any money (let alone a lot of money) by trying a lot of the popularly suggested techniques. Here is my personal rundown of ‘the list’:
Sell Things (on Etsy, Craigslist, Ebay, etc):
I have a number of hobbies, and one of them is drawing. I happened to have Photoshop (for a couple of my other hobbies – photography and digital scrapbooking), so I used it to take my drawings and digitize them to create clip art and patterns for sale.
I’ll bet that your eyes are starting to glaze over already. This is one of the issues with selling things online. You either need to have an art or crafting skill, or you need to know, in your head, the E-bay value of, say, a mid 1980’s Playmobil horse figurine, or a Royal Albert Old Country Roses butter dish…and you have to be able to recognize the great finds at estate or yard sales. You need to be an active collector or hobbyist before even looking at selling online. Then, you need to invest the time to learn the ins and outs of your selling platform.
I started my Etsy shop in 2014, and I made about $200 that year. I poured myself into it, and spent hours upon hours learning about Search Engine Optimization, paid advertising, and social media promotion. This, on top of the years of building my skills in Photoshop, not to mention the actual drawing. Oh, yeah, and I had to invest a lot of time in creating a great product, as well. I likely spent as much time (or more) on Etsy as I did on my full-time job. For $200. In a year. The numbers often look even worse if you have to invest in a lot of supplies in order to create a physical craft for sale – for each shop turning a decent profit, there are many, many people on Etsy losing money on their crafts.
While my Etsy shop’s work-to-income ratio has improved over time, I would probably be better off getting a part-time job, even now, in terms of income generation for hours invested. I keep up my Etsy shop because I have a skill I enjoy exercising and a lot of hard-earned knowledge, but I definitely don’t recommend it to anyone looking to get rich quick.
What is Depth of Field, and why does it matter? How about ISO? How come the people in your nice sunset photo are silhouettes, instead of being able to see their faces? How do you retouch a portrait in Photoshop or Lightroom? What do you put in a model release? If you can’t answer these sorts of questions, you are really not a professional photographer, even if you intuitively take great photos.
Photography is a lot of fun. It has been a hobby of mine since long before digital cameras even existed, and I took a few photography courses in university. I have a pretty decent digital SLR, and a couple of specialty lenses, plus a Photoshop program that allows me to tidy up my photos in post-processing. My friends all love my photos, and tell me I should be a professional photographer. Sometimes, they pay me to do their family portraits.
All that praise led me to trying out stock photography. I signed up for basically every site that existed in 2007 – from Shutterstock to Dreamstime. I was really excited about all of the money I was going to make, since my photography was quite good, and I had some travel photos that I thought were really unique.
Except that stock photography buyers were not looking for my type of unique images. Looking around on stock photography sites, many of which have tens of millions of photos, there aren’t that many truly unique photos, either, and mine certainly aren’t. Well-composed, yes. Properly-exposed, yes. Unique? Not so much. If you are looking to sell your travel photography, go search ‘beach and palm trees’ or even ‘Tikal’ or ‘Petra’ on a couple of stock sites, and you’ll see the sort of competition you are dealing with. To top that all off, a lot of stock photography is sold to advertising agencies, and they don’t care about your images of the Pyramids; they want photographs of people in an office, looking businesslike. If you do sell any images, expect to see anywhere from twenty cents to a dollar in profit per sale.
My best-selling stock image, ever, was a photo of a childish sidewalk chalk drawing of some stick women holding hands, with a rainbow over top. When same-sex marriage became topical, it sold like hotcakes. At twenty to thirty cents a pop, that image has made around $70. In fifteen years. Even with hundreds of images online, in fifteen years, I haven’t even made enough money to buy a new lens, let alone a new camera.
There are definitely people making money on stock photography, but they are typically professional photographers, or people with access to some unique material…or both. The folks making significant money on stock usually have tens of thousands of images online, and add dozens or even hundreds of new images each month. If you love photography, and want to try your hand at selling your images, by all means, give it a shot; just don’t have high expectations for traveling on the proceeds.
Print on Demand:
I don’t see this one so often in relation to making money for travel, but it is often touted in the same breath as stock photography or selling art on other money-making how-to lists.
“Put it on mugs and T-shirts, and sit back and watch them sell like hotcakes”
…yeah, no. Given that I already had all these fabulous photographs and drawings, I did try putting them up on some Print on Demand sites like Zazzle and Society6; I think I’ve made about $3, so far. In several years. These sites are much like Etsy, in that you have to do a huge amount of work in order to get found, as your mug with the photo of a toucan is competing with millions of other products, and gets lost in the shuffle. Successful Print on Demand sellers typically have huge social media followings, and spend as much time (or more) promoting the products as creating them. If you have the skill/talent to create great stuff, plus the requisite huge social media following, this might be worth a try. Otherwise, I don’t recommend it.
Again, not something I see so much on the ‘make money for travel” posts, but this one does come up a fair bit in the “make money from home” recommendations. In the end, once you sign up for a few survey sites, you’ll discover that you are making a few cents per survey, and if you are able to qualify for enough surveys to keep yourself busy (market researchers are looking for particular demographics), you’ll find yourself working for far less than minimum wage, in most cases.
I have not tried this…yet. It’s probably going to happen sooner or later, just because I love travel and I love writing, and getting articles published in magazines and newspapers would feel like a real feather in my cap. However, from a quick survey, it looks like the going rate is anywhere from a token $10 per published article to as much as ten cents per word at the highest-paying gigs that a beginner might hope to break into (though it would be a stretch).
Doing the math, that’s $200 for a 2,000 word essay, presuming the magazine publishes all 2,000 words you submit (not likely, with a good editor). I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time on a travel post. Hours. Even more if I am going beyond my own opinions to cite any facts that require research and fact checking. Plus the time and money invested in the actual travel – I have been known to spend days researching a trip. Even if I wrote, say, five articles on my trip to Quebec City that were published for reasonable rates, I would be losing money on the trip expenses, nevermind the time invested in writing and research.
Write a Book or Ebook:
I’ve written a book, and self-published it. Granted, it was not a travel book – it was actually a Christmas gift for family members (a book of prompts with journaling space to help record family histories), but the place where I had it printed also offered the option to list it on Amazon, so I thought: “why not?”
It’s been up there for over a year. It has never sold.
Like every other ‘get rich quick’ scheme out there, there is a great deal more to selling books than merely writing them. You need to do the work promoting your book on social media, and if you really want to go somewhere with it, probably on paid advertising, as well. This might have a shot if you have a huge social media following who are interested in the topic you’ve written about…assuming you are a good writer.
I have not really tried affiliate sales, myself. I will likely have a few affiliate links on this blog, eventually, but I certainly do not have high hopes for them.
I have an acquaintance who really did make a go at affiliate sales. She built dozens of websites on a variety of topics, and loaded them with top-notch content, that she had partnered with industry experts to create. This friend spent tons of time researching and optimizing SEO (search engine optimization) in order to get her sites to the front pages of the long-tail searches she was targeting. She updated her sites and added targeted articles every month in order to stay relevant and up-to-date. With all of that, her very best month in five years made about $700. That was a way-above-average month, after years of investing effort into this.
For her, it made sense to pursue affiliate advertising, as she had a disability that prevented her from working a regular job, but liked doing the research and writing and having something to do. It helped her feel like she was contributing to her family, and kept her mind sharp. Her affiliate sales supplemented her family’s income, and definitely helped with the bills. However, she probably put in more than full-time hours, and was starting with a great deal of skill in web design and development and writing.
This is actually my third blog. The first was a short-lived humor column about dating, which died a quick death when I met Trevor. The second was a long-running blog about rural life that I maintained for several years, until I kind of ran out of new things to say about gardening and raising chickens. Now this.
Why do I blog? I actually love writing. I also love photography. Blogging is a great outlet for both of these hobbies, and it’s fun to have an audience for the things I have to say. I find it fun to share anecdotes and advice, and it makes me feel like I am helping people solve some of their little day-to-day problems. I love to travel, and hope to encourage people to take the leap and broaden their horizons.
It’s certainly not for the money.
I briefly tried monetizing the second blog, in the hopes of being able to afford some new equipment. I made exactly nothing on blog ads, and the same in affiliate sales. For PR (Public Relations) goodies, I was offered a box of cookie mix, relating to a series of posts I had done on gluten-free cooking, worth $4. With a newsletter of a couple hundred, and a monthly readership of a few thousand. Not exactly big bucks.
Now, that blog was hobby blog, focused on a small niche of readers who don’t exactly spend big bucks on fancy goods. I put no effort into SEO or sales. The pool of potential advertisers was small at best, and unlikely to be paying for a lot of promoted posts. In addition, this was all prior to companies recognizing the potential of social media and influencers. Nevertheless, I suspect my experience is close to the norm; I don’t think that the folks making tons of money from their travel blogs are typical.
If you want to blog, by all means, get out there and do it! It’s a wonderful venue for travel stories, and a fun way to get your writing and photography out there. Just don’t do it for the money.
Summary of Money Making Techniques:
My general conclusion is that while it is possible to make some money doing each of these things, very few people will make a lot of money doing any of these things, and each of them actually requires a high level of expertise. If you have an untapped skill, and are willing to put in the effort to learn how to sell effectively, then yes, you may be able to fund some of your travels. However, it won’t be quick, or easy, and if you are only in it for the money, your interest will probably fade long before you see a significant payoff.
How to (Actually) Make Money to Travel:
All of this begs the question: “So how do I fund my travels, Jess?”
Well, there are two simple ways that are very much tried and true, that allow most people to save up a pretty good travel fund, over time. They are not sexy, though, and won’t give you great material to regale your friends with: 1) you can cut expenses, or 2) you can get a second job (or work extra hours at the job you have).
This is pretty simple and straightforward, and you will have a better chance at successfully getting yourself on a plane in a reasonable amount of time by doing these two things. They don’t require any real skill or expertise, and will begin to pay off within a month of when you start. This will not make you rich, and I think that’s why more people don’t go that route – they are lured in by the promise of something that not all that many people do, which is therefore hard to debunk. This is not ‘easy’, per se, but in the end, it will likely be an easier path to success than trying to figure out Etsy SEO, or depth of field, or the value of an antique you find at an estate sale.
Most people can get a second job. I know I could walk into a local big-box store or fast food chain, and probably be making more than minimum wage by the end of the week. Do I want to flip burgers? Heck, no! There’s ten million things I’d rather do with my time. The question, though, is do you want to get yourself to Australia (or wherever) more than you don’t want to flip burgers? This is a very simple yes/no question, and your answer will dictate whether to go back to dreaming, or to polish up your resume.
Just to do the math out loud for you, where I am, minimum wage is around $11, and taxes amount to roughly 15-20% for most people who already have a full-time job. Say you worked 16 hours a week – one 8-hour shift on the weekend, and maybe two four hour shifts during the week – you’d make 16 x $11 = $176, and even subtracting taxes (say, 20%), you still have $140 per week left to save. Over the course of a year, that’s over $7,000! That’s a really nice vacation you have in your savings account, there!
Okay, so you don’t have the time or motivation to get a second job. What then? Saving money is also fairly simple (though not necessarily easy). I don’t know very many traveling-type people who can’t cut a few dollars a day someplace. Quit eating out, and start cooking in. Skip the take-out coffee on your way to work. Buy clothing second-hand, and only when you need it. Wait for sales before buying the things you do need. There is tons of advice on this all over the internet (here is one traveler’s take on how she does it), but really, it comes down to making decisions: do you want to get yourself to Australia (or wherever) more than you want that half-caff soy caramel latte? Five bucks doesn’t sound like much of a travel fund, but if you put $5 in a jar every day for a month, you have $150. In a year, that gives you $1,800. That’s still enough to buy you quite a nice trip!
On top of my Etsy shop, I do both of these things, myself. I take overtime when it is available at work, and my family is all on board with limiting luxuries like $5 coffees and expensive clothing and toys, in favor of putting the money into a travel fund. While we are not rich, we are able to take nice trips, both domestically and abroad, without having to deprive ourselves while on holiday. It does take a bit of effort, and I’ll never be able to sell you an e-book on my get-rich-quick scheme, but these are very effective ways to pad the travel account.
If you already have an enjoyable hobby that you would like to capitalize on, by all means, go ahead and try your hand at stock photography or selling on Etsy. However, if you are just in it to make money for travel, there are far faster and more practical ways to fund your trip. Saving money and getting another job (or working overtime at the job you have) are not sexy. They are not fun. You won’t be bragging about them to your friends. They will not make you rich quickly (or ever). However, they are guaranteed and practical ways to come up with a travel fund, and don’t require any special skills, equipment, or expertise. They are also things you can do tomorrow, without buying anyone’s e-book, course, or members-only subscription. Save yourself the hassle and heartbreak, and stick with the tried-and-true methods that really do work.